Signs of the Time: Hal Colliver's Sign Collection

Sign collection in Iowa boasts signs of nearly every kind.


| March 2016



DX Shell

Internal lighting makes these signs glow at dusk.

Photo by Leslie C. McManus

We’re blowing down the road, headed to Hal Colliver’s place southwest of Iowa City to look at his sign collection. The GPS is chattering and I’m consulting notes I’ve made on Hal’s address. When I look up, it’s pretty clear we’ve reached our destination. An old saying comes to mind: You can’t miss it.

Like spendy hotcakes

When it comes to signs, as any knowledgeable collector knows, it’s not really necessary to qualify “antique” with “collectible.” These days, any old sign is hot. Doesn’t matter what it’s made of, doesn’t matter what category it falls into, doesn’t matter whether it’s in good shape. Signs sell like hotcakes – spendy hotcakes.

“They’re very high-priced these days,” Hal says. “They’re completely out of sight. It’s not about what the sign is worth; it’s about what you want to give for it.” Hal is the enviable guy who got to the party early. “I guess I started collecting 50 years ago,” he says. “I was a truck driver and I’d see billboards. I never went by a billboard I didn’t read.”

Then a buddy who worked as a county road maintainer gave him a sign declaring, “Enter at own risk.” Prophetic words, those. Hal became a sign collector and never looked back. I ask how many signs he has; I don’t get much of an answer. The more I look around, I realize the question is akin to asking how many stars shine overhead.

All on display

Porcelain, neon, wood, tin, plastic and glass. Soda, petroleum, oil, beer, businesses. Livestock breeds, ice cream, tobacco and taverns. Feed & seed, restaurants, tires, batteries. Political, municipal and just plain directional: No sign is turned away from Hal’s collection. “Once in a while I end up with a duplicate,” he says. “I sell those, but that doesn’t happen much anymore.”

The signs are not hidden away. Clearly visible from the road, they draw in passing drivers. “People pull in and gawk,” Hal says. “I have them sign my guestbook. We even had a TV crew from Brazil here one time.”